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What's All the Fuss about Election Enthusiasm?

We explore just what it may mean if youth are excited about an election, and its implications for their voter participation and vote choice.

If you have been paying attention to the news over the past few weeks, it would be difficult to miss references to “election enthusiasm.” Many references are in relation to President Obama’s ability, or lack thereof, to re-build the almost-mythical support and energy of 2008.

While “election enthusiasm” is a vague concept, it’s difficult not to take note of some young people’s frustration with the President. For example, in our summer poll, 40% of young respondents chose the word “disappointed” to describe how they most deeply felt about President Obama. (Options were: admiring, angry, disappointed, satisfied.) Yet, frustration is not necessarily an indicator that someone will not vote and/or is not engaged in the election. An argument could be made that it would be a huge challenge to beat the 2008 level of turnout, regardless of how young people feel about President Obama. The jump from 40% youth turnout in 2000 to 51% in 2008 was supported by short-term infrastructure investments and there is not yet enough infrastructure in place to sustain/build youth political engagement over the long-term.

The data so far this year are mixed, showing encouraging changes from 2008 – including a seemingly more robust Republican youth outreach strategy, and youth lead other age groups in saying they are “more interested” when compared to 2008. At the same time youth are giving the campaign comparatively less attention this time than at the same point in 2008, though these indicators have not plummeted.

What is Enthusiasm?

  • A quick brainstorm leads to several potential indicators of enthusiasm about an election:
  • Active participation in campaign(s)
  • “Buzz” or amount of discussion about the campaign/election
  • Attention being paid to campaigns
  • Likelihood to vote
  • Amount of campaign infrastructure

The first potential indicator is not something regularly asked in polls, so there is little comparative information. Plus, campaigns really ramp up after the conventions; as a result, asking this question before conventions take place may be misleading.

The second and third potential indicators are integrally related. As we heard from youth in focus groups regarding the 2008 elections, they were consistently reminded about the campaign and paying attention to it, mostly because peers were talking about it.

In June of 2012, the Pew Center for the People and the Press asked Americans if they were “giving thought to the election.” For the 18-29 year-old respondents, Pew reports that 59% answered “quite a lot,” and that this was down from June 2008 levels (an 8-point drop from June 2008, compared to a 5-point drop for the general population and a 14-point drop for 30-49 year-olds). Pew also shows that, over the past 24 years (for all ages together), this number has risen rapidly between June and November – anywhere from a 9-point jump in 2008 to a 26-point jump in 2000. As a result, it’s highly likely that the number of people “giving thought to the election” will rise.

This June report also asked if respondents were “more interested than four years ago.” Eighteen- to 29-year-olds were more likely than the general population to say they were more interested in this election.

The fourth indicator, likelihood to vote, is difficult to predict for youth. Gallup reported that in May to July of this year, 58% of registered youth polled said they were “definitely likely” to vote, 20 points below Oct/Nov of 2008. However, Gallup also said that:

If history is a guide, young voters should become more likely to say they will definitely vote between now and the fall, as occurred in 2004 and 2008. These increases were much larger than the national increases in those years, suggesting young voters decide whether they will actually vote later than most voters do.

In fact, exit poll data from 2008 show that about half of young people who voted made that decision in September or later, even as late as Election Day:

Finally, one-third of youth eligible to vote in 2012 will have turned 18 since November 2008. Research shows that both information and registration influence youth turnout. Unlike in 2008, in 2012 both major political parties and allied groups have initiated major youth outreach efforts, potentially creating more contexts in which young people can be exposed to outreach/recruitment.

As we continue to discuss youth electoral engagement, enthusiasm should be a concept we think about as a construct made up of several components, rather than something we can measure with one question. When the inevitable references to electoral enthusiasm crop up, make sure to keep all of these factors in mind.